Republicans say they will not seat Sen.-elect Jim Brewster as a legal challenge to his victory is pending, although his win has been certified and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recently sided with him in a dispute over how to count votes in a close race. Democrats decried the move as an overreach and an echo of Republican attempts to overturn result of the presidential election.
In an interview, Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D) accused Republicans of “raw partisanship,” drawing a “straight line” between their actions and broader GOP resistance to certifying the election of President-elect Joe Biden.
“This idea that one’s party is allowed to pick the winner, despite evidence to the contrary, is toxic and corrosive, and that is what you saw play out on the floor of the Senate today,” he said.
Brewster edged out his Republican opponent Nicole Ziccarelli by 69 votes, and Ziccarelli is urging a federal court to discount about 300 mail ballots from Allegheny County without handwritten dates on their envelopes. State law requires the dates, and Republicans note that many counties did not include such ballots in their tallies. But the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has allowed the disputed Allegheny County votes to be counted.
Republicans say they are justified in delaying Brewster’s seating while “ensuring … properly elected representation,” as Sen. Jake Corman, the president pro tempore, said in a statement. Corman said Pennsylvania’s secretary of state should have made sure voters were treated equally across counties before certifying election results.
“While we work to resolve this issue expeditiously we … are confident a brief delay in filling the seat for the 45th Senate District will not affect the balance of power in the Senate,” he said, adding that constituents “will continue to receive assistance with their state-related issues.”
Democrats say lawmakers have exceeded their authority in interfering with a certified race. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) called the refusal to seat Brewster “a disgrace to democracy.”
Under the Pennsylvania constitution, members of the Senate may object to a swearing-in on the grounds someone is unqualified — for example, because the person is not of the required age.
“They’re trying to usurp the authority of the courts as to whether or not ballots should be counted,” Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D) said in an interview.
The scene in Pennsylvania played out as President Trump and his supporters continue to attack Biden’s win, advancing claims of electoral wrongdoing that have been repeatedly rejected in court. Some Republican members of Congress have vowed to object on Wednesday when they meet to accept the results. Vice President Pence is also under pressure to use his ceremonial role in the process to throw the election to Trump, though Pence lacks the power to do so.
Brewster’s race is not the only close contest with ongoing challenges. Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks (Iowa) was recently sworn in provisionally with other members of the U.S. House of Representatives, while her Democratic opponent challenges a six-vote victory margin.
In Pennsylvania, however, the disputed seat is vacant.
Tensions erupted in the Senate chambers Tuesday as Fetterman refused to start a vote on Republicans’ motion to block incumbent Brewster’s swearing-in — and as GOP members warned they would remove the lieutenant governor from his presiding role at the rostrum, the ornate wooden platform at the front of the room. They said they would replace him with Corman.
“Do not threaten anyone in this building!” a Democratic state senator, Anthony Williams, shouted in response, contending that Republicans were the ones breaking rules. “Because trust me, my friend, you don’t want to walk up there with me up there!”
The chamber filled with murmurs. Then, with Fetterman still ignoring calls for a vote, Corman stood at the front of the room and began speaking into a microphone.
Williams cut in — “I totally object to this, he is not in control!” he said — but Corman pressed ahead with a roll-call vote to eject the lieutenant governor.
“Hell no,” one lawmaker said when his name was called. When Williams’s turn came, he declared: “I’m not sure why we’re voting. We’ve crossed a bridge, we’ve broken all sorts of rules today.”
At first, Fetterman tried to maintain control. He did not move.
“The chair will not cede the rostrum!” he said. “The chair will not cede the rostrum!” Confusion reigned as he briefly tried to run a separate session over Corman.
Eventually, however, the lieutenant governor stopped interjecting.
“There was no sense in me remaining,” Fetterman said later, adding that he did not want to create “absolute chaos.”
A spokeswoman for Corman, Jennifer Kocher, said in a statement that Fetterman and Senate Democrats “hijacked” the “order and decorum of the Senate,” allowing votes that were not properly motioned and seconded to move ahead, along with other irregularities.
“We remain committed to conducting the business of the Senate in accordance with the Pennsylvania constitution, the law and our rules without the displays of partisanship and the level of disrespect that we saw today,” Corman said in a statement released Tuesday night.
Brewster had been waiting for his moment with Bible in hand and left the floor after it became clear he would not be sworn in, he said.
“This doesn’t look good for our government,” he said later in an interview. “Doesn’t look good for our state.”
It is not clear how long Pennsylvania’s 45th District may remain without a senator. Republicans say they are hoping for a quick resolution, but Brewster is not so sure.
“Let me get on with my job — the budget, the pandemic, all those things. And let the legal challenges play out,” he said. “They could take months.”